Paying tribute with pictures

Nature photographer inspired by work of Ansel Adams. He’s shot images on all seven continents.

If you are courageous enough to write a letter to your icon telling him how much you admire him and his work, then part of you knows the best you might get back is an impersonal response, most likely written and signed by the icon’s assistant.

If you are bold enough to write a letter to your icon asking him not only for advice but to review your work, then a good bit of you expects to receive no reply at all.

In March 1977, budding photographer Peter Essick sent the latter sort of letter from his home in Burbank, Calif., to Ansel Adams, one the world’s legendary landscape photographers. So when a letter came back postmarked Carmel, Calif., Essick was certain it was a good-luck-to-you-kid response from Adams. Inside the envelope was an invitation to visit Adams in his Carmel studio.

“He said he met people during a 5 p.m. cocktail hour in his studio and that I should call his assistant to set it up,” Essick said this week in his Stone Mountain home. “I was shocked.”

That letter helped set in motion a career in landscape photography that has made Essick, who moved to Stone Mountain 13 years ago, one of the world’s prominent nature photographers.

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For the past 25 years he has been a photographer for National Geographic. In tribute to the man who inspired him, Essick, 54, spent weeks last year in the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada taking pictures of rugged vistas either shot by Adams or that were inspired by his legacy.

That homage is now a multipage, black and white spread in the October issue of the magazine.

Prints of that work hang in two small gallery spaces in Essick’s home. He is a soft-spoken guy, even a bit shy. You wouldn’t be too off base if you called him self-deprecating, based on the way he describes how he got some of the shots. That brutal snow-scape, which in a glance can chill a viewer to the bone? Well, it wasn’t that hard to get. All he had to do was hike for days and sleep in a snow cave in zero-degree weather. That Sierra juniper, twisted steadfast to the earth while the stars whirl above it? It just took patience and a three-minute exposure on a clear, crescent moon night.

Though he works with cameras and equipment that Adams never got a chance to explore before his death at 82 in 1984, Essick is still influenced by lessons he learned on that visit to Adams’ studio 34 years ago. He remembers the exact layout of the home and how the sitting room was near the back, the darkroom to the right of the entry. Adams sat with him for an hour, looking at Essick’s landscape portfolio, describing what worked and what didn’t. Adams had gained international prominence in part through his work as a photographer and early member of the Sierra Club.

“He said do nothing that takes your eye away from the central theme,” Essick said. “That has always stuck with me. And when he said that a picture of Death Valley reminded him of [photographer] Edward Weston, that was the biggest compliment in the world to me.”

Still, it took a few years before Essick practiced photography full time. He graduated college with a business degree and worked for a while as an accountant at Capitol Records. But he soon quit and did product photography before going to photojournalism school at the University of Missouri. An internship at National Geographic, while he was still at Missouri, opened the door for a freelance career that has taken him to all seven continents.

“It’s difficult to shoot scenics. It’s the hardest thing for a photographer to do well — and he does,” said Susan Welchman, senior photo editor at National Geographic, who has worked with Essick his entire 25 years at the magazine.

But when Essick turned in the Adams tribute, it was shot in color, said Welchman, not the black and white synonymous with Adams. For a less accomplished photographer that could have been disastrous because when “it’s going to be rendered in black and white, you look at things a little differently going in,” Welchman said.

Essick’s work is sold locally through the gallery Lumiere in Buckhead. Gallery director Tony Casadonte did a solo exhibition of his pictures last fall. With them all hanging together, what struck Casadonte about the overall portfolio is how Essick used his journalistic background to render uncomfortable subjects in visually beautiful ways, like the remnants of nuclear waste. Or as he did in the “drunken forests” in Alaska, which show the effects of global warming. Former Vice President Al Gore used those photos in his Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“Like the pictures of the tar sands in Canada and the price it’s extracting from the earth,” Casadonte said of Essick. “These are stories that need to be told. It speaks to his mastery that he can do that.”

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